In one year the entire world will turn its attention to Dallas to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of John F. Kennedy. The mayor hopes to show off a city that has evolved into a sophisticated global destination. But when it comes to the assassination, nothing is as simple as it seems—and that is why Dallas is so worried.
by Mimi Swartz. TexasMonthly.com
Unlike so many people who have become part of the Dallas narrative, Robert J. Groden doesn’t radiate the aura of a winner. He is a paunchy 67-year-old nebbish who drives a PT Cruiser and loves dining at Red Lobster. He is tall, but he slouches. His color isn’t good, probably because, by his account, he suffers from three kinds of heart disease. His shaggy hair, doleful eyes, and chronic wince give him the mien of a man locked in a perpetual if not entirely painful state of mourning, which actually happens to be the case. Groden has devoted most of his adult life to exposing what he believes to be a diabolical conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy. In better times, he wrote best-selling books on the subject, assisted the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and pitched in as a consultant for Oliver Stone’s JFK. But these days Groden can most often be found selling his books, magazines, and DVDs from a battered folding table on Dallas’s infamous grassy knoll, in the shadow of what was once known as the Texas School Book Depository, where, depending on your level of paranoia, Lee Harvey Oswald did or did not fire the shots that killed the thirty-fifth president of the United States. “I would bet money LBJ was up to his ears in it,” Groden told me after suggesting that the assassination was instigated by some combination of organized crime and the CIA. I half expected the crisply attired waiter hovering over us at a fancy Design District restaurant—my choice—to ask us to leave.
In other words, in another city, in another time, Groden would be hard to picture as a threat to anyone. But since moving to Dallas from the East Coast, in 1995, he has been ticketed 81 times for minor offenses—“harassed,” in his words—and in June 2010 he was arrested and spent nine lonely hours in the Lew Sterrett Justice Center until a friend posted bail. “All for selling a single magazine,” Groden told me in the dulcet tones of his native Manhattan. Granted, JFK: The Case for Conspiracy displays gory autopsy photos of Kennedy’s head, but there’s no law against that. Pushed just a little too far by that nine-hour detention, Groden filed suit against the city in federal court. “I believe in conspiracies, and I think this was an obvious one,” Groden said of the continuing litigation, which he sees as an attempt to silence him just as a critical date in the life of his adopted hometown peeks over the horizon. “I don’t know why they are so afraid of me,” Groden added. Besides the fact that he embodies everything Dallas doesn’t want to think about ever again, I couldn’t come up with a thing.
November 22, 2013, will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK. For five decades, this most self-conscious of Texas cities has attempted to work its way out of the shame it suffered internally and externally because of this catastrophic event, and thanks largely to the passage of time, it’s finally approaching what therapists like to call “closure.” But as Mayor Mike Rawlings told the Dallas Morning News last March, this particular occasion “is very important—unbelievably important—as to our place on the world stage.” It is an article of faith around city hall and among certain North Dallas power brokers that the eyes of the world will be turned on Dallas that day—that this could, in fact, be the biggest moment in Dallas history since, well, the assassination itself. The arrival of Anderson Cooper, Bill O’Reilly, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, Telemundo, Al Jazeera, and God knows who else is anticipated, and given the voraciousness of the 24/7 news cycle, they could actually appear.
Hence, official Dallas has reverted to type, sprucing up, anticipating problems, and forming committees with super-secret plans—that is, exercising complete control—in its attempt to honor the late president while showing the world how much it has changed since the dark days, when a preponderance of right-wing lunatics earned it a reputation as the City of Hate.
Community leaders know there is a right way and a wrong way to host a global event (oh, the sorry Super Bowl of 2011). The right way would include introducing visitors—especially members of the international press corps—to Dallas’s impeccable taste and blossoming diversity. Let guests gaze upon the glorious Arts District, with its gleaming Winspear Opera House and Nasher Sculpture Center. Let them take in the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge or sample a dinner prepared by Stephan Pyles or Dean Fearing. Let them see how private funds have helped tidy up the once sorely neglected Dealey Plaza and Texas Theatre, where Oswald was apprehended.
Robert Groden and his ilk, however, represent the wrong way. History has shown what can happen when things spin out of control where this particular date is concerned. On the twentieth anniversary of the assassination, for instance, a local provocateur named Joe Christ drove a convertible through Dealey Plaza with Jackie and Jack mannequins in the backseat. At a designated moment, the presidential dummy’s head popped off, and fake blood spurted into the air. Then, just last year, county commissioners considered and then—when the county judge returned from vacation—nixed a plan to allow a British company to build a 174-foot Ferris wheel near the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza. And in September a visiting troupe from Chicago’s Second City comedy group performed a skit in which Dallas community leaders debated the sale of JFK bobblehead dolls on the fiftieth anniversary. Needless to say, they did not receive a standing ovation.
Clearly, no one in the Dallas power loop wants to see a poorly dressed mob occupying Dealey Plaza, chanting about conspiracies and cover-ups—at least not while Wolf Blitzer is broadcasting worldwide. It’s a serious game with uneven stakes. With exactly one year left to prepare for the event, the city knows that if everything goes right—if nothing happens but a tasteful ceremony honoring the slain president—the world will move on in a nanosecond. But if anything goes wrong—anything at all—Dallas, after fifty years of ignominy, will find itself right back where it started: at best, mortified; at worst, vilified.
The Crescent Club, which crowns the office building at the Crescent, perilously treads the border between good taste and self-parody. Designed by Philip Johnson in the heyday of postmodernism, the office-hotel-shopping complex is a witty pastiche of eighteenth-century British architecture combined with the mansard roofs of the Second French Empire and grillwork cribbed from Ashton Villa, a Victorian mansion in Galveston. The penthouse of dining areas and cozy meeting rooms is one of those richly paneled places modeled after private gentlemen’s clubs, before that term became synonymous with strip joints. Until a tuxedo-jacketed manservant adjusted the lighting on the crystal chandelier from “night” to “day” in my assigned meeting room, I thought I was going to have to ask for a torch.
It is an odd place to talk about inclusion and change, but there I was, sitting around a table with Mayor Rawlings and Ruth Collins Sharp Altshuler, the chairwoman of what had been recently christened “The 50th: Honoring the Memory of President John F. Kennedy.” They made a good pair. Rawlings, a Democrat, is burly and silver-haired but, even in fine tailoring, an unmistakable guy’s guy. He was in elementary school in Kansas when JFK was shot. Altshuler has a light in her eyes that shows she’s lost none of the zest that has seen her through her 88 years. She was at the Dallas World Trade Center on November 22, 1963, waiting for the president at the luncheon he never attended. Rail thin but hardly frail, it isn’t hard to see how Altshuler could have run around in the same circles as Sophia Loren and Gene Kelly. Nowadays she hobnobs with George and Laura Bush and Margot Perot. Altshuler is a Dallas powerhouse, one of those gracious, old-line Texas women who refuse to admit they have any clout while exercising it masterfully. On this day, she let the mayor do most of the talking, listening attentively while sipping coffee from a china cup.
“We felt we needed to get way out in front of this, and we felt we had to do it in the right way,” Rawlings said intently. He got his first inquiry about the city’s plans for the fiftieth anniversary on the forty-eighth anniversary, from a Los Angeles Times reporter. Even though this benchmark had not been on his radar, he was no stranger to the importance of appearances: before Rawlings was elected, in 2011, he had been a successful advertising and marketing executive and the head of Pizza Hut. For Dallas, the anniversary is “the most important day from an image standpoint,” he told me, adding, “We do not want to look like we are sweeping this under the rug.”
Conover Hunt, a historian and consultant who was one of the creators of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, which is located in the old school book depository, often talks about the moment when “memory becomes history,” when the horrific pain of catastrophe fades. Rawlings decided early on that focusing on the trauma of the assassination would not be good for anyone—not the Kennedy family, not the country, and certainly not Dallas. “This is not about the Warren Commission,” the mayor said of the commemoration, “this is about honoring the man.” The planning for the 2013 event, in fact, can seem like the apotheosis of the city’s post-1963 mind-set—the hyper-concern with taste and tone, the need for hyper-vigilance, because others will be not just watching but judging. To make sure the event planning does not become subject to citywide debate or criticism, for instance, Rawlings has labored to control the message: he and Altshuler have been named the official spokespeople and have directed committee members to send all press inquiries their way. Rawlings drafted Altshuler because he wanted “a chair who the whole city recognized and who has taste.” She, in turn, started trawling for donations, because private money is so much more acceptable and admirable for such things than public money. “Only one person didn’t get it,” Altshuler said, with a satisfied grin. “He was tired of the mea culpa, but he said, ‘I’ll give you the money anyway because you called.’ ”
Earlier this spring, Altshuler helped put together a committee of illustrious, politically correct, and pretty much beyond-reproach Dallasites—philanthropists like Deedie Rose and Caren Prothro; business leaders like Erle Nye and Bobby Lyle—and then basically did what she wanted when it came to planning the program. On the day we spoke, she had embargoed the details of the event but revealed that she had asked a friend who is a prominent historian to read a few of Kennedy’s speeches. Using another contact, she persuaded an esteemed choral group to perform. Rawlings will be the only elected official to give a speech—eliminating any potential grandstanding by, say, a certain Texas governor—and the whole event will last no longer than forty minutes, including a moment of silence at twelve-thirty, the time when the shots were fired.
Everyone in Dallas will be invited to come to Dealey Plaza—even the likes of Robert Groden—but you’ll have to have a ticket to enter. “You’ve got to take the attitude that we should embrace free speech in Dallas,” Rawlings assured me. The city center will be cordoned off, Jumbotrons will simulcast the program in other downtown venues, and security will be tight, tight, tight. There are plans to pull in the rest of the world with some kind of global bell-tolling ceremony. The committee also hopes to mark the end of the occasion with a military flyover. “We wanted it to be a serious, respectful event, something a bit profound, and we wanted it to be simple,” Rawlings told me.
Transcribing my interview notes later, I wondered whether the mayor’s use of the past tense showed that he had already jumped from planning to execution or that his desire for simplicity had already faded from memory into history.
A quick refresher for those born after November 22, 1963: back at that time, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the dashing young president who was going to lead America out of the fuddy-duddyness of the Eisenhower era. Space flight, civil rights, a torch passed to a new generation, style—every promise that would have energized post–World War II America was personified by his presidency, and every hope was dashed on that day in Dallas. This was an America that predated cynicism and irony, before we knew about JFK’s dalliances with Marilyn Monroe and his supposed links with the mob. That Oswald, the man believed to have killed Kennedy, was shot on November 24 by a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby—live, on network television—was simply incomprehensible; this was before the nation had become inured to serial violence and reality TV. “With the murder of Oswald, the Pandora’s box was opened,” said Conover Hunt.
Anyone looking for a scapegoat could find a perfect one in the city of Dallas. Sure, it had Stanley Marcus selling couture to Princess Grace, but it also had right-wing crazies like H. L. Hunt and General Edwin A. Walker. In 1960 LBJ and Lady Bird were set upon by angry mobs who accused them of being socialists; three years later Adlai Stevenson was hit over the head with a sign by an anticommunist protester. Marcus himself is said to have warned Kennedy not to make his November 1963 campaign swing through the city. As Lawrence Wright, who wrote about the assassination in his coming-of-age memoir, In the New World, noted, “At the heart of the Dallas-killed-Kennedy argument is a similar presumption about Oswald: the community hated Kennedy so much that Oswald felt licensed to act out our fantasy.”
No matter what you think about who killed Kennedy, the fact that Dallas was blamed for his murder is indisputable. Residents experienced the trauma up close and personal: “It was like a horror story unfolding in your own backyard,” said Dallas native Lindalyn Adams, who worked with Conover Hunt to establish the Sixth Floor Museum. For a time, the entire city seemed to be suffering from PTSD. Psychologist James Pennebaker, now head of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin but then a professor at Southern Methodist University, completed a study in 1988 that showed a dramatic spike in heart disease, murder, and suicide in Dallas in the years following the assassination. (Suicide in Dallas increased nearly 20 percent in 1964; the increase nationally was 4 percent.) It was impossible to escape the blame: Dallasites who admitted their origins when traveling out of town were ejected from cabs and restaurants. “Bang, bang, bang,” a non-English speaker once said to Wright when he found out where he lived.
Dallas put itself on the path to recovery by being, well, Dallas. Interestingly, the city never suffered financially from the assassination, so there was plenty of money to distract an all-too-willing populace with new buildings and new ideas. Erik Jonsson, who was elected mayor in 1964, formed a committee that in turn created “Goals for Dallas” to give the city a road map with which to begin again. The Cowboys, who started playing in 1960, began a nineteen-year winning streak in 1966; the handsome all-American quarterback Roger Staubach was the person most Dallasites wanted their sons to grow up to be like. In 1978 the TV show Dallas made the city’s inhabitants look less like conspirators and more like shrewd, glamorous tycoons you wouldn’t want to meet across a boardroom table. When it came to the JFK assassination, then, the best way to deal with it seemed to be to put your head down, think and act positively, and ignore the subject. Many people just stopped talking about it, even with their kids. Or they looked on the bright side, which was the Dallas way. Wright told the Chicago Tribune that the assassination was “a critical corrective for a political culture that was out of control. It ennobled the city and gave it a conscience and made it a more tolerant place to live.”
That kind of thinking worked 364 days out of the year. But it always seemed that on November 22, somebody picked at the scab. “Someone was either firing shots in Dealey Plaza [for an official investigation] or asking to do so or giving a press conference about a new book,” Hunt recalled. Dealey Plaza was left in a state of what Hunt called “passive preservation,” meaning that it wasn’t plowed under, but it wasn’t fixed up either. The 1970 Kennedy Memorial, a gleaming cenotaph of white concrete designed by Philip Johnson and approved by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, faded to a dingy gray.
But the clearest evidence of Dallas’s ambivalence was the planned demolition of the book depository, in 1972. Over the years there were those, like cosmetics mogul Mary Kay Ash, who insisted that the wrecking ball couldn’t come soon enough. “It was a scar,” said Jim Schutze, a longtime writer for the Dallas Observer, “and what do we do with a scar in Dallas?” But others, like Mayor Wes Wise, understood that it was time to begin to make peace with the past by restoring the building and creating some kind of museum that would put the event in context, locally and nationally. “The thing that propelled me was knowing this had to be done for this city,” said Adams. “Because if [the book depository] had been torn down, there always would have been a question about what we were trying to hide.” It took eleven tortuous years—battling Tom Landry, courting Ross Perot, enduring the indifference of Washington, D.C.—to get the Sixth Floor Museum up and running; when you hear the founders talk, they sound like Marines struggling to raise the flag at Iwo Jima.
By the late eighties and early nineties, the typical story line seemed to be that Dallas was learning to let go, and outsiders had forgiven and forgotten—or they never even knew. “Twenty-four Years Later, City Plans to Face Kennedy Slaying” was a Chicago Tribune headline in 1987; the following year a story ran in the Tribune titled “Dallas Starts to Confront the Memory.” Hunt told the paper that the completion of the Sixth Floor was “a concrete manifestation of the community coming to terms with this event.” On the thirtieth anniversary, Kane Patrick Kennedy (a man who claimed to be a distant relative of JFK’s) attended a gathering that drew three thousand people. On the fortieth anniversary, five thousand people—yes, many of them conspiracy theorists—assembled for a quiet vigil in Dealey Plaza. The Dallas symphony performed that night. “Dallas Comes to Terms With the Day That Defined It,” declared the New York Times. JFK’s death had finally made that memory-into-history transition, taking its place alongside the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Like so many other controversies, it’s hard to pinpoint the beginning of this one. Some people think the trouble started in March 2010, when Erykah Badu—born in Dallas in 1971—stripped naked in Dealey Plaza and collapsed where Kennedy was shot. She wasn’t having a breakdown; she was filming a music video. (“Badu said she picked Dealey Plaza since it was one of the most popular places in her hometown of Dallas,” WFAA television reported.) By contrast, Groden thinks that a local makeover for the 2011 Super Bowl—the first to be played in the Metroplex—was to blame. But for whatever reason, the police announced a crackdown that summer on vendors in Dealey Plaza.
So, on a bright sunny day in June 2010, a woman walked up to Groden’s card table on the grassy knoll and asked to buy JFK: The Case for Conspiracy. Groden took her $10, autographed a copy, and handed it to her. The next thing he knew, a somewhat portly Dallas police officer stepped out from behind one of the columns supporting the Depression-era pergola and arrested him. His crime? Selling printed material in Dealey Plaza without a permit, something he had been doing since 1995. Groden was subsequently handcuffed and escorted to the county jail, where he was stripped to his skivvies and searched, then forced to share a cell with people who had, most likely, been arrested for far more serious crimes. Police confiscated Groden’s collection of assassination materials and deprived him of his medications. As if that weren’t discomfiting enough, after he had gotten out on bail and hired a lawyer, Groden made an unfortunate discovery—for Dallas. “As it turns out, what they charged me with was not even really an arrestable offense,” he said.
In fact, Groden was charged twice. First, he was accused of selling merchandise on public property. The problem was, as Groden learned, the ordinance made specific allowances for the sale of publications. The city then charged Groden for violating a different ordinance, one that required him to get a permit to sell printed matter in Dealey Plaza. But it turned out the park department didn’t sell such permits, and, probably worse, the city was supposed to have signs in Dealey Plaza posting its rules but didn’t. Or, as one of Groden’s pleadings would later state, “Thus, none of said ordinances apply to Plaintiff’s First Amendment activities in Dealey Plaza.” A municipal court judge agreed. By the time the city appealed, Groden had already filed suit in federal court.
It was not surprising that Groden then developed a new conspiracy theory. It centered on the desire of the Sixth Floor Museum to put him out of business because he was the most legitimate person on the plaza pushing an alternative theory of JFK’s death. “The other salespeople don’t matter,” Groden explained. “They don’t have any credibility.”
Indeed, the Sixth Floor staff does seem dedicated to the idea that Oswald killed Kennedy from his perch in what is now the prime corner of the museum, which annually welcomes around 350,000 people. To its credit, the museum doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the toxic atmosphere that pervaded Dallas at the time of the assassination; the infamous black-bordered ad that “welcomed” Kennedy to the city is prominently displayed (paid for by a group of right-wing businessmen, it asked, among other things, why JFK had “scrapped the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the Spirit of Moscow”). But the exhibits are less focused on the messier elements of the assassination. Scant attention is given to alternative theories, and on the day I visited, the bookstore, while big on nifty copies of Jackie’s jewelry, did not sell a single book that suggested anything but that JFK’s death was the work of a lone gunman.
According to Groden, the museum’s conspiracy-averse viewpoint can be explained by an early agreement between the city and the museum that the latter would follow the Warren Commission’s line, which, conveniently for Dallas, doesn’t involve any loony theories about Jack Ruby and late oilmen like Clint Murchison. It could also be that the Sixth Floor shows what it shows because it believes Oswald acted alone, a notion supported by the failure of any government commission to come up with much evidence indicating a conspiracy after nearly fifty years of trying.
But for whatever reason, Groden’s arrest and subsequent lawsuit have presented what political consultants like to call “bad optics,” particularly after Groden’s lawyer discovered a few emails in which the Sixth Floor security guards reported the presence of vendors in Dealey Plaza to the police—i.e., go get ’em!—and another from the CEO of an influential group of boosters thanking the police “for the continued efforts to rid the downtown area of criminals.”
While the traditional media largely ignored the fight, Jim Schutze most decidedly did not. The Observer’s bearded, laconic gadfly—he refers to Dallas’s power elite as “people who have had too many toddies”—started pecking away at the city’s hypocrisy, turning a dying argument about who killed Kennedy into an all-too-lively debate about free speech. Maybe it was a little disconcerting that Schutze’s blog posts were accompanied by a photograph of him aiming a large shotgun at the reader, but you had to give him credit for calling Groden’s arrest “a jack-boot operation to enforce official dogma on the assassination.” Another story carried the headline “The Sixth Floor’s Message to History: Just Hush Now.”
Nicola Longford, a plucky Brit who has run the Sixth Floor for the past seven years, and Carol Murray, the Sixth Floor’s cheery public relations representative, looked like deer in the headlights when I asked them about the Groden controversy. At a meeting in their office next door to the old book depository, Longford noted that Dallas still needed to “work through” the trauma of the assassination. “You don’t have to scratch very deeply to see very oozy wounds,” she told me. She and Murray also talked a lot about “trying to maintain a balanced point of view” inside the museum while also trying to maintain a modicum of order outside, on its doorstep. “We have concerns when visitors complain to us,” Murray told me.
“There is a level of discord and a complete irrationality on certain topics,” chorused Longford, who clearly had found herself in the center of more than a few discordant, irrational debates.
When I called back to follow-up on Groden, she told me that she couldn’t say anything because of the litigation. “We don’t like to be dragged into a situation that has turned rather nasty,” she explained. “We’re just trying to stay out of it.”
That will probably be impossible because of another controversy that cropped up last fall. Since 1964 a group of conspiracy theorists, led more recently by an organization called the Coalition on Political Assassination, have met on the grassy knoll for a moment of silence on the anniversary of JFK’s death—that is, at twelve-thirty on November 22. As crowds grew over the years—particularly after the release of Oliver Stone’s movie—COPA applied for and routinely received nonexclusive permits from the City of Dallas for their confabs. Then, a few years ago, someone had the smart idea to apply in advance for space on Dealey Plaza in 2013. John Judge, the executive director of COPA, told me that he was first informed by a park department representative that permits were not given out years in advance. Then, in the fall of 2011, Judge learned that the Sixth Floor had somehow managed to get, for the first time in Dallas’s history, an exclusive permit for the plaza from November 18 to 24. Judge and his group were victims of a preemptive strike by the city.
The explanation for the exclusivity, according to a story that ran in the Morning News, was that no one responsible for the now officially sanctioned commemoration-to-be wanted anything like the “carnival atmosphere” that had prevailed in the past. More discussions followed that did not turn out well. There was some debate, for instance, over whether COPA’s moment of silence conflicted with the city’s moment of silence—because the city now had control of twelve-thirty.
Judge phoned Altshuler and asked whether a representative of COPA might join her committee. He might as well have asked to join the bigwigs of the Chinese Central Government. Altshuler said no, and when Judge asked if a member of his group could address the committee, he was told to put his request in writing. When he did, she wrote back, mentioned her advanced age, and said, “I have no authority in these matters.” Judge also approached the mayor’s office, and he is still waiting for a response.
Somewhere around that time, Judge cracked that he might have to occupy the grassy knoll in 2013. Within a few days, he was no longer kidding, and he posted a letter online saying, “I am calling on the national network of Occupy groups to join us as well as the thousands of researchers, authors, critics, and concerned citizens who know the truth about the Kennedy assassination, or at least suspect that the official version is wrong, to join us there. If there is not enough democracy left in America to ask questions in public about the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X and others on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder . . . then those who killed him have won.”
And that is where it stands now, with a lawsuit from COPA possibly joining the lawsuit filed by Groden, threatening to put a damper on the city’s plans for that solemn ceremony followed by a somber flyover. “We’re sort of exhausting our remedies at this point,” Judge told me in October. “I would hope it doesn’t have to go to a lawsuit to assert our First Amendment right.”
His statement put me in mind of all those folks who’d told me they were optimistic about Dallas’s ability to finally lay the past—and its shame—to rest. One of the most certain was Pennebaker, who’d examined Dallas’s psyche in the post-assassination years. “I would predict that the fiftieth anniversary is the beginning of the official end,” he told me. “There are not that many people alive who remember this event at all. This generation will be redefining and ultimately forgetting it.” Pennebaker suggested that if you visit a place where something tragic happened five hundred years ago, time will have diluted the pain and the horror just as Conover Hunt has theorized. “That’s the next phase for Dallas,” Pennebaker said. “Wow, look at this—history happened here.”
For Dallas, that moment can’t come soon enough.